The Filmmakers on Capturing Life After Trauma

By Ariana Bacle


The team behind Stolen Daughters: Kidnapped by Boko Haram discuss the hurdles they faced documenting the Chibok girls’ post-release reality.

After news broke in 2014 that 276 girls had been kidnapped from their school in Chibok, Nigeria, the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls was utilized to pressure the Nigerian government to arrange for their rescue. Around this time, the Nigerian government approached filmmaker Karen Edwards about making a documentary on the kidnapping. She was interested — but not in the film they wanted her to make. Instead, she, along with a team that included director Gemma Atwal, made a documentary on their own terms.

That documentary, Stolen Daughters: Kidnapped by Boko Haram, premiered at New York’s Margaret Mead Film Festival at the American Natural History Museum. After the screening, Edwards, producer Sasha Achilli, journalist Chidinma Irene Nwoye and scholar Shobana Shankar spoke about how the film came together and what the girls’ lives are like now.

Edwards kicked off the discussion by explaining that in 2014, then-president of Nigeria Goodluck Jonathan “was very slow to react” to the news of the girls’ capture. After expressing interest in telling the girls’ story, Edwards began receiving calls from government officials claiming a rescue was nigh. “I felt they were trying to use me to make a documentary to perpetuate [Jonathan’s] propaganda,” she recalled. “They didn’t rescue any of the girls in 2014, but it completely got under my skin and I couldn’t forget about it.”

Once word got out in 2016 that the government was actually negotiating for the release of some of the girls, Edwards and her team leapt into action to craft a film that would depict the truth of the situation. Although they secured access to the safehouse where 82 rescued girls would live, the filmmakers still had to abide by some rules, including not asking about the girls’ time in captivity. While they obeyed the edict, they found a workaround: Some of the girls gave them their diaries.

“They wanted us to know their stories,” Edwards said. “They couldn’t talk to us about it... but they also wanted us to know what was really going on.”

Stolen Daughters shows how the girls were discouraged from discussing or revisiting their painful past. Producer Achilli was “taken aback” after witnessing this approach at a group therapy session where the counselor advised the victims to move on.

“I was like, ‘Is this normal?’ Then I got out of my Western mindset and was like, if you grow up in a place where you’re worried about day-by-day survival, then yeah, the notion of trauma, of PTSD, is so abstract,” she remembered. “It’s a luxury to even reflect upon those things.”

Nwoye, who grew up in Nigeria, seconded this observation. She explained Nigerians like to use a term called “suffering and smiling” to describe how they deal with trauma. “In the case of the girls, I think they’ve been desensitized, almost,” she said. “We don’t have a culture of therapy or mental health or counselors or psychology. People turn to religion.”

The girls are now studying at American University of Nigeria, courtesy of scholarships provided by the Nigerian government. The producers showed a video message from two girls featured in the film, Margret and Hannatu, talking about their progress in their English classes.

But there are still many girls — and boys — in captivity, including the remaining Chibok girls. Edwards stressed that freeing those victims of Boko Haram isn’t as simple as sending donations: “The money is there and being sent. It’s just not going to the right place,” she said.

Instead, she suggested continuing the conversation: “What we can do is put pressure on [the Nigerian government] and let them know that we’re watching.” she urged.

Stolen Daughters: Kidnapped by Boko Haram is available to watch on HBO GO and HBO NOW.